Accessible look at sexuality

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 July, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 July, 1997, 12:00am

PROMISCUITIES Naomi Wolf Chatto and Windus, $220 Naomi Wolf has become the girl next door of American feminism. Still in her early 30s, she is often hailed, sometimes almost accusingly, as the world's most attractive feminist, much in the way Gloria Steinem was pushed to the fore in the 1970s as the acceptable - and beautiful - face of feminism.

Wolf is personable, pretty and thoroughly nice - exactly the right person to convey a simple message about women's lot to the sort of audience which would usually be resistant to listening.

The marketing of Promiscuities makes it seem her publishers see her this way too. It is packaged as a mass-market read, a naked and attractive female body stretching languidly across the cover. The publicity lines are sexy and grabby: 'We are all bad girls', they glower, 'but what kind of women are we?' - more the stuff of bodice rippers than feminist theses. The style too is easily accessible. Wolf writes in a chatty, friendly prose, a world away from the academic language or the polemic of some feminists.

Broadly speaking, the theme of the book is: how do young women develop ideas about their sexuality, their value and the world around them? But the topic is treated in a way akin to fiction, through personal anecdotes involving Wolf and her teenage friends: the parties they went to, the good and not so good sexual experiences they had and the incidents which shaped them, all the way from trying to look like a Barbie doll to their confused and confusing first relationships with boys.

Usually such stories of adolescent awakening chart the entry into the brave new world of adulthood after the protective innocence of childhood. Wolf's adolescence was more complex than that: not so much discovering sexuality as struggling to make sense of it. Her childhood was during the sexually liberated 70s in one of the most swinging cities in the world, San Francisco, where sex and sensuality were an unavoidable part of everyday life. Giant phallic candles were on sale in the local store. Parents, as well as big brothers and sisters, made no secret of their affairs, drugs and wild parties.

Some of the more general observations might seem self-evident to women who also grew up in modern Western society. Despite the sexual revolution, girls still have to make sense of underlying contradictions. They are assumed to be sexually active - but their value still lies in virginity and in chastity. They are well aware of the unspoken rule that it is their responsibility to set limits and to control sexually aroused boyfriends who, by contrast, 'can't help themselves'.

They know that the loss of virginity is the way to adulthood - but it is a rite which is uncelebrated, secretive and all too often a bitter disappointment. These and other such truths are well documented - but they bear such warm and human retelling.

Some of the passages I enjoyed most were those which stepped sideways into other cultures and other times. The reminder, for example, that it was women who were considered sexually rapacious and uncontrolled until as recently as the 18th century, when Western society abruptly changed its mind and turned the devils into angels. Similarly, the debate about women's sexual pleasure - is sex a duty or do women actually want it and enjoy it? - has also been pushed from one extreme to another to suit the times, from 16th century sexual enthusiasm to Victorian prudishness.

The discussion goes on - we may think we are being far-sighted if we teach adolescent girls how to avoid unwanted pregnancies and venereal disease, but why are we still unwilling or unable to teach them how to achieve orgasm and delight in their sexual appetite? A copy of Promiscuities put into the hands of every 14-year-old girl - and boy - may do the next generation a world of good.